Ishvara Pranidhana – Devotion, Trust and Humility
By Paul Dallaghan
“Complete surrender is like falling from a tall tree without flinching a muscle”, said the great sage Ramakrishna about 150 years ago, before the advent of the skyscraper. His point is clear though; how much do you cling to life, possessions, your agenda, trying to control the uncontrollable, all exhibited by a strong tendency to tense and grip based on deep patterns of fear and selfishness running through your system?
Surrender implies complete trust, sitting in your heart, open to the Divine plan and where and how life takes you. It is more than just letting go, surrendering, going with the flow. A pure trust, belief, that actually carries you, it raises something within you, through the heart. It is mostly explained as devotion par excellence. Such devotion gives rise to grace, which is the lift within. This is Ishvara Pranidhana.
Ishvara Pranidhana is the most frequent statement in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This element is essential to a yoga practice, to life, to anyone working on themselves, which is the subject matter of yoga. The philosophy of yoga as presented by Patanjali accepts the theory of Samkhya and what it offers in terms of an explanation of evolution. But for it all to make sense and work in practical life terms this element of Ishvara is introduced. The grace that rises within, that you cannot do much less create.
Very often Ishvara is taken to mean “God”. If this were the case yoga would fall in to the category of all other religions which tell you to follow a God, as they name it and if you don’t accept this then you could not call yourself a follower of this religion. This is not the domain of yoga. Yoga offers a philosophy for life and provides us with a practice and means to understand ourselves within this changing world. There is no dogma, no statement saying you must believe or you must do this. In fact Patanjali freely employs the word “va” which means “or”. Ishvara is your personal approach to the Divine. You choose, you connect with what is personal for you. It may be Jesus, Buddha, Krishna or none of those but rather the experience in nature.
What will help you understand is ‘pranidhana’, devotion or rather its effect, that inner rise, grace. Ishvara resides in your own heart, usually blocked by your own dirt of prejudice, selfishness and fear. A connection with it causes a rise, an opening that you could not make happen. Ishvara has a personal meaning for you that may not register with someone else. Though the human ego wants everyone to accept their way of belief because “it is correct and the only way”. The fact is that the journey within, the effect from working on yourself, is an extremely personal, intimate affair.
Think of the trust and love a baby has for its mother. To that baby right then its mother is Ishvara. Before that the baby is crying, frustrated, maybe even someone else is holding it. But when mama comes along and picks it up it changes, relaxes and completely trusts how mother will carry it. As we grow up we come against many similar frustrations, doubts and fears. These trap us even with all the yoga practice we do. Our heart cannot sprout. When you find your connection, when you can trust and be free, the love in the heart grows and grows. This is Ishvara Pranidhana. Apply it, have it in your life. When you are not sure what is happening next in your life, if you doubt the change coming to you, if you are resisting it. You can’t help but worry about the future, become a little negative and insecure. Pause. Manage yourself and trust the process. Put faith in your belief through the connection you are establishing to the Divine. It’s ok. There is an element of unknown. Hand over your fear and worries to your belief. And do appropriate action at the same time.
Ishvara Pranidhana comes up under kriya yoga and as one of the niyamas. As a kriya it is emphasising something devotional for you to do. Perhaps a ritual practice each day or some form of mental recitative practice. Ceremonies, rituals, practices can be learnt along with mantras that serve as a vehicle for you to offer to “your Ishvara” and thus connect. This process is to reveal the seed of it in the heart. Our arrogance will tell us it is rubbish or I can sit and open my heart. Be careful here as the ego is deceptive. No matter who we are a medium is needed to initiate a connection with grace. If you want to meet a good friend today you will contact them through a “medium” of phone or email. Then using the appropriate “vehicle” you travel to where they are. After a period of time employing the vehicle to bring you to them you are finally together. This feeling is something that is hard to describe as it is more in your heart. Yet it came from an effort, a doing and you employed mediums and vehicles to bring about this “union”.
Ishvara Pranidhana as a niyama is more of an attitude of devotion that you carry with you, that you live your life with. See the Divine in all, be open, humble, gracious and respectful. Let go, let be, trust. Do you try to force a situation because it must be your way or you are afraid if it were to go any other way? Sometimes we don’t even realize when we do this. This does not suggest complacency, however, where whatever happens. There are times when you have to stand up and be firm. Even then ready to accept the outcome. Put into practice next time on the train feeling tense about will you be there on time. Or when you are on a plane and there is a bout of turbulence. How do you feel then or can you ‘trust’?
For Patanjali the best expression of Ishvara is the Pranava. This is OM. Though the examples given above are personalized approaches to Ishvara, that work for you in practical terms in your life, for Patanjali it is clear that it is the ultimate purusha, above all others, untainted by time, never bound, eternally free, unlimited. Through realization one may become like Ishvara but Ishvara differs in that it was never bound to prakrti in the first place. To receive the grace, the pranidhana, you need to repeatedly chant this sound of Ishvara, Om, chant and feel it within you, without the mind wandering here and there. Then your consciousness merges with the sound, intensifying the inner experience. In the Sadhana Pada of Yoga Sutra Patanjali highlights this by explaining that from Ishvara Pranidhana Samadhi is attained.
“Samadhi-siddhir ishvara pranidhanat” (PYS II.44)
This devotion means a surrender of all thoughts to the Divine, a merging with the Divine. But it could not occur with taking into account the other yamas and niyamas, the restraint and working on oneself, or the other angas. It could be said that the other angas strengthen Ishvara Pranidhana and they lead to samadhi.
In practical terms the elements of yoga, the different practices, need devotion and true trust for them to bear fruit. When you practice you should aim to merge your attention into what you are doing. Add an element of mantra repetition to your practice and do it wholeheartedly, mindfully. Grace comes, the process of yoga deepens. One of my favorite sutras offers the approach;
“Tajjapas tadartha bhavanam” (PYS I.28)
repeat, repeat, repeat (practice, practice, practice), whether it be the mantra or another form of our practice that could even include mantra, but it must be done with feeling, a connection, never mechanical. This feeling, connection through repetitive practice is the process of Ishvara Pranidhana.
I wish you sincere, true and genuinely felt practice.
Practice, practice, practice – with awareness.
Just do it – but with awareness.